To create, or not to create?
The United States is in the midst of a gold rush over human-embryo research. Not to be outdone by California's Proposition 71, which affirmed research cloning and committed $3 billion for stem-cell work, New Jersey became the second state to support embryo creation for research as part of its more modest stem-cell initiative. Now numerous other states, including Massachusetts, Maryland, and Wisconsin, are jumping in with proposals to similarly fund research cloning, also called somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. Compared with most other countries, the United States has become the Wild West, awash in private and public money looking toward human benefit and hefty economic returns.
This is happening against the backdrop of a resounding but nonbinding vote last week by the United Nations calling for all governments to ban the cloning of human embryos for any purpose. This call echoes a raft of legislation by individual nations. A Swiss law that took effect earlier this month is typical of laws in most European countries: It bans embryo creation outright. That is, it forbids scientists from creating human research embryos by any means, including cloning, fertilizing eggs, or making chimeras--hybrid embryos of humans and animals. Scientists can work with spare embryos left over from in vitro fertilization, but that must be authorized by the state. Violators face hefty fines and jail time. Britain and Belgium allow embryo creation for research but don't make it easy. Britain has an independent embryo authority to scrutinize and monitor all projects and has issued only two cloning licenses since 2001.
What has made the United States such fertile ground for expanding embryo research is not its liberal laws but the lack of them. Congress has tried but failed to pass legislation largely because of irreconcilable metaphysical differences over when life begins. Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush banned the National Institutes of Health on ethical grounds from funding the creation of human research embryos, although their orders apply only to federally funded work. In 2001, Bush additionally narrowed NIH research to embryonic stem cells already harvested from spare IVF embryos. These restrictions triggered an outpouring of private and state funding, and the dramatic Proposition 71. Meanwhile, Bush pushed NIH funding of adult stem cells, which are not ethically challenged, and are proving, unexpectedly, to be almost as versatile as embryonic cells though not as plentiful. It's too early to choose a winner here, but the research largess from all sectors is unprecedented.
Handicap. Most Americans are for stem-cell research, but grasping critical differences between adult and embryonic cells, or the vocabulary of cloning, SCNT, and IVF, can be mind-boggling. It's easy to talk about the wonder of stem cells but harder to see the nuances of their creation. That has handicapped us in coming to a national consensus. Furthermore, the halo around stem-cell promise can easily obscure deep moral and religious issues surrounding many dimensions of this work.
A human embryo in its earliest ball-of-cells stage is still not the same as a lab rat. Creating such embryos to be research tools of commercial value tugs at the moral fiber of society and raises numerous ethical and social issues that are simply not being addressed by the silence of the law. How about women, the invisible research subjects here? South Korea made the first human embryonic cell lines from a clone a year ago, using 242 human eggs to do so. Many women faced the risk of daily hormone injections to artificially pump up their ovaries to the size of oranges filled with maturing eggs, which were then harvested for cloning. How can we assure that students in search of tuition, poor women in need of income, or junior lab workers wanting to support a research effort are not exploited?
A national effort to develop legally enforceable guidelines to oversee human-embryo research is urgently needed. And the rules must be clear, transparent to the public, and apply to all. The outcome might be one that allows for regulated embryo creation as in Britain or bans it for now as in most other nations. Doing nothing will keep stem-cell biology wealthy for a while, but science unregulated and mired in controversy will be damaging in the long run.
This story appears in the March 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.